- Matthew Thorsen
- Jane Knodell
"She was no rubber stamp." That's how Peter Clavelle recently described working with Jane Knodell, who led the Burlington City Council for three years while he served as mayor. Although they're cut from the same political cloth — both are pro-development Progressives — Clavelle distinctly recalled that Knodell "twisted my arm on occasion."
More than a decade later, Knodell, 60, is poised to become council president once again — this time alongside a Democratic mayor. Can Miro Weinberger share the power with the longest-serving Progressive councilor in Queen City history?
Knodell is starting her 17th nonconsecutive year on Burlington's governing body. The Stanford-educated economist has taught at the University of Vermont since 1986, during which time she's also authored papers such as "Rethinking the Jacksonian Economy: The Impact of the 1832 Bank Veto on Commercial Banking." She stepped down from the city council after she was appointed UVM's provost in 2010 but returned in 2013, shortly after resigning from that position.
When the city council meets on Monday nights in Burlington City Hall Auditorium, Weinberger sits at one end of the U-shaped table, while Knodell holds court on the other. The arrangement holds symbolic importance — though the two don't butt heads often, Knodell has emerged over the last two years as the mayor's foil.
She's less loquacious than your average politician, but when Knodell does talk — in a slightly gravelly voice and at a professor's measured pace — councilors listen.
"She's probably the smartest person at the table," said Progressive Councilor Max Tracy.
Republican Councilor Kurt Wright considered Knodell his political adversary when they first encountered one another on the council in the 1990s. These days, though, they are close allies. "She is — and I mean this in the best sense — a very strong woman," Wright said. "She doesn't back down to anyone."
Not surprisingly, Knodell commands similar respect in her classroom. At the start of a Principles of Macroeconomics lecture last Friday, roughly 90 students jabbered in a theater-size room. Two soft-spoken "good mornings" from Knodell were sufficient to silence the chatter. Opting for chalk and blackboard rather than PowerPoint, she proceeded to guide students through equations while also peppering them with questions like, "What are the components of aggregate demand?"
Sporting a poker face and rimless glasses, Knodell can be blunt during policy debates. Drawing on her fiscal acumen, she's challenged Weinberger on subjects ranging from the fate of Burlington Telecom to the future of the Burlington Town Center mall. But her opposition generally takes the form of probing for answers rather than waging personal attacks.
When the mayor announced plans for the mall's redevelopment, Knodell played the lead in drafting 19 questions about the developer's credentials, the public input process and whether the project would reflect the needs of low-income residents. She's been especially vocal about the city-run telecom, insisting that it remain locally owned and that city officials try to recoup the $17 million still owed to taxpayers.
The council president assigns councilors to committees, works with the mayor to set the agendas and moderates debate. The bearer of that title is expected to limit his or her own participation during those discussions, which means Knodell will have less opportunity to publicly grill the mayor. But behind the scenes, she'll have more sway — and she plans to capitalize on that.
If she's elected president, Knodell said, she'll make sure the council plays a role in decision-making earlier in the process. Rather than the Weinberger administration recommending a particular course of action to the council, she'll demand a palette of options. The goal, she explained, is to create a "stronger, more independent" governing body. Wright suggested that under Democrat Joan Shannon's leadership, the council has sometimes seemed like an arm of the administration.
If Weinberger is nervous, he's not letting on. "I certainly have a lot of respect for Jane, and I hope the feeling is mutual," he said, adding that he expects the "productive working relationship" they've enjoyed thus far to continue.
What about the time she and Wright introduced a resolution calling for more action on permit reform — a particular affront to the ex-developer mayor, who's made such reforms a cornerstone of his political agenda? During that debate, Weinberger described the resolution as a misinformed document that ignored substantial improvements made during his tenure. He told the council, "A basic tenet of comanaging the city ... is that we not surprise each other and certainly not surprise each other on issues we care about."
In an interview last Thursday, he was less inclined to scold. "I consider Jane to be a straight shooter. She communicates with me clearly when she doesn't agree with something," Weinberger said. "That's a healthy part of the way our process works."
Both Weinberger and Clavelle praised Knodell for eschewing political partisanship. Asked if he thought she'd ever crossed the line from watchdog to obstructionist, Weinberger said no, and added, "I think Jane is motivated by what she believes is in the best interest of the city, as am I."
At times, Knodell, who calls herself a "centrist Progressive," has been at odds with her own party. Progressives certainly weren't singing her praises in the fall of 2013 amid an acrimonious debate over the F-35 fighter jets. She voted against two Prog-sponsored resolutions that would have either barred the Burlington International Airport from hosting the planes or delayed the decision about where to base them. Ever the economist, Knodell said she was concerned about the potential loss of jobs. At the time, Tracy told Seven Days he was "shocked and betrayed" by her votes, which also conflicted with her campaign pledge to oppose the planes.
Knodell's willingness to break with her party has also inspired admiration.
"To me," Wright said, "that's the ultimate test of leadership — doing what you think is right and knowing you might disappoint your constituents and your party."
Democratic Councilor Tom Ayres described Knodell as a "mediating influence between her fellow Progressives and the rest of the council."
But colleagues also say Knodell, with her conservative bent and independent edge, has been instrumental in forging a coalition among non-Democrats on the council. During the past two years, when the council was split with seven Democrats and everyone else, the latter group banded together from time to time. That informal alliance is the reason why Knodell is nearly guaranteed to win the council presidency on April 6.
The newly elected 12-member council consists of five Democrats, four Progressives, two independents and a single Republican. Knodell has already locked down all the non-Democratic votes.
The elder Progressive is unwilling to take credit for being a binding agent and instead attributes the confederacy to the younger Progs, who've made an effort to reach out to their more moderate peers. Tracy contends that she's made that outreach possible. Over post-meeting beers with Knodell and Wright, he's connected with an older, Republican councilor he might otherwise have clashed with.
Knodell also took on the role of mentor during the recent election. In Ward 5, she encouraged her former student, Mike Fife, to run under the Progressive banner. (He lost to incumbent Chip Mason.) One of her current students, Ben Vidal, managed independent Adam Roof's successful campaign for the Ward 8 seat. Vidal credits Knodell with encouraging him to care about local politics — first within the classroom, then outside it.
During her own campaigns, Knodell has shown little patience for political stunts. When she ran for office in 2013, Democrats tried to make an issue of a compensation package she received to "transition" from provost to professor — approximately $285,000 over 18 months. In response to the controversy, Knodell told Seven Days, "I am proud of the fact that I was able to break the glass ceiling at the University of Vermont and hold a position traditionally held by men ... It should not be necessary to apologize for the fact that my skills and experience have value in the academic community." After the election, she requested — and received — a written apology from the Democratic party chair.
During her spare time, Knodell swims, hangs out with her miniature schnauzer and does Sudoku puzzles — "the easy ones," she insists. She's married to Ted Wimpey, director of the Fair Housing Project at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
But Knodell doesn't have much time for extracurricular activities. In addition to a full teaching load and her council duties, Knodell has periodically taken on other demanding assignments.
Last fall, for instance, she was recruited to help resuscitate the floundering, debt-ridden Burlington College. She served for several months as the interim provost alongside the interim president, Mike Smith, who had served as Republican former governor Jim Douglas' secretary of administration. The school was on the verge of collapse, and relations between the administration and students, who agitated for the ouster of the previous president, were severely strained.
"I've got to say, I'm a fan of Jane," Smith said, describing Knodell as smart, fair, forward-thinking and flexible. Her levelheadedness helped lessen the tension, he continued, and their different political orientations "never interfered with getting a job done." That entailed selling off most of the college's lakeside campus to a developer — a move that's upset people who want to preserve the land.
Knodell is now a Burlington College board member, causing members of the preservation movement to question whether that role conflicts with her work on the city council. Knodell disputed the suggestion, pointing out that the council hasn't voted on anything related to that land, which now no longer belongs to Burlington College.
Several people interviewed for this story raised another subject: Knodell, they suggested, would make a great mayor. The murmurings are nothing new. Does she aspire to be the first female to preside over the Queen City?
Sitting in her office on campus, Knodell laughed and rolled her eyes before answering the question. "It's not a part of my game plan," she responded, coolly. But, she went on, "Would I potentially sometime run for mayor? I'd say yes."